Ouro Preto: Black Gold and Baroque Opulence
Today I want to tell you about Ouro Preto and encourage you to include a stay in this town when you visit Brazil. Ouro Preto is an historic baroque jewel of Brazil, recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A little about Ouro Preto’s history
If you have seen our blog post about Paraty , you will notice that both towns preserve a similar style of architecture. That’s because their histories are so closely linked. Most of the gold that was shipped from Paraty to Portugal, was mined in the mountains around Ouro Preto. For this reason the town’s full name at the time was Vila Rica do Ouro Preto (translated: Rich Town of Black Gold).
Over time several facts separate the history of these two towns. Ouro Preto’s rise to importance was more rapid than Paraty’s, as was its later decline. Once the mines didn’t deliver so much gold and other resources to its port, Paraty went through other economic cycles where the gold of agriculture (sugar cane & coffee) replaced the mineral riches.
Ouro Preto’s historic standing was closely linked to the minerals extracted from its mountains. The first discovery of gold led to the foundation of the town in 1698. As early as 1720 its significance had increased so dramatically that the seat of the state capital of Minas Gerais was moved here from nearby Mariana. By 1750 the town had grown to over 110,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the Americas – twice the size of New York City at the time!
For the over-extended Portuguese royalty it was a dream come true. The small country had poured so much money into the colonisation of far away places. Until then, it had not discovered any colossal fortunes like their rivals, the Spaniards. Historic documents show that a large portion of Brazil’s gold was shipped straight to money lenders in London to pay off Portugal’s debts. I read somewhere that over 160,000 kilograms of gold originated from Ouro Preto alone, over 800,000 kilograms in total from Minas Gerais!
But the Portuguese were greedy – too greedy in the eyes of the locals. This led to an uprising in 1789, the Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Gerais Conspiracy). In Brazil’s history it is seen as an important first step towards the country’s independence. The first revolt was badly organised; it was quickly and brutally smashed by the Portuguese troops. One of their leaders, the dentist Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (nicknamed Tiradentes – tooth puller) was hanged on the 21st April 1792. His corpse was torn apart, its pieces returned as an unmistakable message to Ouro Preto. The day is still honoured as a national holiday in Brazil. More detail on Wikipedia .
At the end of 18th century, the gold reserves were slowly dwindling, which was one reason for the uprising. In 1822, Brazil finally gained independence and Ouro Preto was declared “Imperial City” by Brazil’s first emperor, Dom Pedro I, in the following year. His successor, Dom Pedro II, founded the School of Minas, originally a mining and metallurgy school and now Brazil’s leading engineering school. Today, students and tourists keep the town alive, although its population is only around 40 thousand, a far cry from its heyday.
The destination of Ouro Preto
Ouro Preto is roughly 400 kilometres inland from Rio de Janeiro and 100 kilometres south of the Minas Gerais capital, Belo Horizonte. It’s not the only historical gold-rush town in the mountains of this state. However, its size makes it an interesting place to base yourself for several days, particularly since there are numerous other attractions within easy reach .
Other towns, like São João del Rei and Tiradentes, are a little closer to Rio and hence are reportedly more tourist orientated (we haven’t visited either, as they weren’t on our way). Ouro Preto has all facilities a tourist could wish for and enough sights to keep you busy for 3-4 days.
All historic mining towns are connected by the Estrada Real (royal road). It was built by slaves to transport the minerals to the ports of Rio and Paraty, from where they were shipped to Portugal. For over a century this was the best guarded road in the Portuguese kingdom. Many current highways often follow the same route, so you come past preserved old arched stone bridges and roughly paved sections, sitting right next to the modern asphalt.
You need to be reasonably fit to fully explore Ouro Preto. The town is located on very steep hills. Roads are extremely narrow and not suitable for anything bigger than a normal car or van; finding a park can be difficult. Most houses are small; combined with narrow streets this makes for a relatively compact town. A lot of the rough historic stone paving remains in place, which makes walking just a little more difficult. Our recommendation: wear solid flat shoes!
You might be on vacation, but a visit to Ouro Preto needs to be planned like a workday! Most sights are closed on Mondays and, on other days, nearly all churches and museums close for a lunch break or only open for half a day. The hours differ slightly from one to the next, but you should plan on not being able to enter public buildings between 12:00 and 14:30 = time for your lunch break!
For its current size, Ouro Preto seems to have too many churches. There are 13 historic churches in all. Sometimes we passed a viewpoint from where we could see 3 churches at once. But don’t forget that the town was once home to over 110,000 people – not 40,000 as now!
In the past we have commented on the rather simple looking Portuguese style churches – not so in Ouro Preto! You will find elaborate stone carvings around windows and doors made from the soft local ‘soapstone’. This continues inside with statues of saints. To decorate the interior of the oldest and richest church, Nossa Senhora do Pilar, a thousand kilograms of gold and an additional five hundred kilograms of silver were used!
Unfortunately, photography isn’t permitted inside any museums or churches, so you have to rely on your memory. I snuck in one photo during a pubic mass at N.S. do Pilar. Otherwise, during visiting hours, security guards are keeping an eye on everybody.
The town also houses 12 different museums. Some are of world standard: the Museu de Oratório (dedicated to small portable prayer icons); and the Museu da Inconfidência (please read above in the history section), which is located in the old Casa de Câmara e Cadeia (government house and jail).
Although all signs throughout town are in English, we really have to criticise how little effort seems to have gone into their creation. Many read no better than any broken Google translations. Nevertheless, we learned in the Museu da Inconfidência how far the oppression by the Portuguese went. For example, all printed media was strictly banned at the time. This was to suppress the spreading of news. Despite that, the uprising in Ouro Preto was partly inspired by news of the North-American independence from the British crown.
Another interesting museum is dedicated to Antonio Francisco Lisboa, nicknamed Aleijadinho, a famous local artist and sculptor who created much of the historic soapstone work in Ouro Preto. He worked throughout Minas Gerais: for example, the statues at the Santuário de Bom Jesus in Congonhas are his too (another nearby World Heritage Site – see our other report, which we will publish soon).
Ouro Preto is also home to the oldest functioning public theatre in America, the rather small Casa da Ópera, built in 1769 (unfortunately it was always locked up when we wanted to look inside).
Mines in Ouro Preto
The town was built around the mines so you can find several mines, right within the boundaries of Ouro Preto, open to the public. We’re not that interested in going underground, so we only visited the (rather hidden) Mina do Chico Rei.
This is a comparatively small mine, with not much to see unless you like to crawl on hands and knees through muddy low tunnels. But the current owner is a character, and this reflects nicely in the quirky style of the entrance building. What really makes it interesting is the history of the person this mine was named after.
The abbreviated story of Chico Rei
From all accounts, this man was an important village chief (chico rei = small king) in his African homeland. He was caught by slave traders and transported to Brazil with his family (his wife and daughter died on the voyage), where he was forced to work in the underground gold mine in Ouro Preto. Every day he smuggled a little gold dust, hidden in his hair, out of the mine until he had collected enough to buy his own freedom.
As a free man he continued to work in the same mine and to smuggle more gold out. When the owner, Major Augusto, became too sick to pursue his interest in the mine, which mysteriously wasn’t making much profit, Chico Rei went and bought the mine from him. Instantly the mine began to flourish, and the new black owner used some of his profits to buy the freedom of many other black slaves in town.
Due to his wealth and positive personality Chico Rei became a respected member of community and friends with a number of influential white people in town. He also used part of his earnings to build the Igreja Santa Efigênia. At that time, it was the only church for blacks to worship in, and he married his second wife there.
Summary for visitors
This post represents only a small part of what we have seen and done in Ouro Preto. You can spend much longer than we did, and certainly find more interesting things to see. The surrounds of the town have a lot of varied sights to offer – so many that I have dedicated another blog post to places to see outside Ouro Preto ! That’s why we recommend spending up to a week here. At over 1,100 metres, the weather is usually quite pleasant.
There are plenty of tour operators and guides in town. Shop around, and make sure your guide speaks English (or your preferred language) well enough for you to follow before you commit.
The town offers accommodation in all price categories: from hostels, with bunk beds, to 5-star. Outside peak season (like Carnival), it should be possible to find a room during the week on short notice; on weekends it might be advisable to book in advance.
You can easily find a restaurant serving Brazilian or International cuisine; we found a good Sushi buffet at ‘Hannah’ . We also ate a tasty vegetarian lunch in the cafeteria below the tourist information.
Since Ouro Preto is a town where people actually live, you can expect traffic at all hours of the day. Unlike Paraty, it was sometimes difficult to photograph a building without a car parked in front, or whizzing into the picture. That’s one side of the equation. On the other side you find all services and shops you would expect in a regular town: bakeries, convenience stores, pharmacies, etc.
For the only big supermarket we had to drive to the edge of town. In Bauxita we found a cooperative supermarket on the MG-129; it was well stocked and cheaper than we have found elsewhere.
Recommended further reading: Wikitravel on Ouro Preto
Extra info for overlanders
The only campground is a fair bit out of town, and right on the main road. You would need to drive from there into town where you are then faced with the challenge of finding a park. We heard that a nightclub across the road creates a fair bit of noise at night.
We stayed at the Igreja São Francisco de Paula (20.381846 W / 43.507596 S) and added the location to iOverlander . It was reasonably quiet, although there’s a little passing traffic all night. Just down the road there is a large Military Police post, and the Terminal Rodoviário (bus station) at the end of the street.
You can walk from the Igreja São Francisco de Paula into town. As a bonus, we were able to watch a group of small Marmoset monkeys balancing along the powerlines, usually in the mornings.
NOTE: roads in town are so narrow and steep that it’s really not advisable to drive any full-size camping vehicle through town. I usually say that we can go anywhere they sell Coca-Cola or beer, since our truck is no bigger than regular delivery trucks. Not so in Ouro Preto! The parking lot at the bus station is used to transfer goods from delivery trucks to small utility trucks and vans – to be distributed throughout town. Simply obey the signs: no trucks allowed in the historic centre!